Plenty of automakers have talked about carbon fiber. They've put it on concept cars that were never made, and placed it on expensive sports cars in high-profile parts.
BMW AG is looking beyond concept cars or individual parts with its 2013 Megacity vehicle. Every body panel and some interior parts will be made using a carbon fiber the company will mold itself, using carbon fiber from BMW's new joint venture plant.
The MGV is the perfect car for BMW's new material investment because the automaker, based in Munich, Germany, is creating a wholly new, all-electric vehicle for the urban environment.
When you get the chance to re-create a vehicle from the bottom up, with no shared platforms, it's ideal for lightweight, strong materials, said Jim O'Donnell, president of Spartanburg, S.C.-based BMW North America LLC, during an Aug. 4 interview at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.
BMW has been working extensively with carbon fiber for at least seven years, he said, and currently molds its own roofs with the material for its M3.
BMW has further strengthened its exposure to carbon fiber with its new partnership with Wiesbaden, Germany-based SGL Group. The two companies are investing $100 million in a new carbon-fiber plant in Moses Lake, Wash. The location, O'Donnell said, allows the companies to boost the MGV's environmental credentials by using renewable hydroelectric power at the energy-intensive plant.
Companies like BMW have more opportunities to invest in new technology, he said, because they respond to a different client base one that can spend more on cars and expects more new technology for its money.
Premium manufacturers have a chance to innovate more than the volume boys, O'Donnell said. But after [we] prove the technology, it gets democratized and more people use it. I think that will happen here as well.
But while the material may be new, BMW does not expect that it will have to completely reinvent the assembly line for the MGV.
It's like the commercial says, parts are parts, said Richard Morris, vice president of assembly at Spartanburg.
While Morris noted that he is not directly involved in any of the MGV decisions, he expects that the plant will treat carbon fiber the same way it does existing composite parts on its cars.
BMW's X5 has composite front fenders that are delivered to the line and bolted into place. The same is true for composite fenders on the 6 Series cars and the M3's carbon-fiber roof.
I wouldn't anticipate it being any different than that, Morris said. It would be bolting on body panels from a supplier in the assembly hall.
The same is true for other automakers expanding product lines for future engines and vehicles.
Material selection will be important in future vehicles, said Norm Bafunno, vice president of production engineering for Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America. The easier it is to drop new materials into the existing line, the better.
If it can follow a similar paint path or a similar weld path, then we think we're ready for that, he said. As those types of technologies emerge that are going to be different from the type of welding or paint processing that we do today, then we're going to have a second look.
But even cars that are changing the auto landscape will still fit comfortably into the existing manufacturing system.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. will even make its all-electric Leaf on the same line at its Smyrna, Tenn., plant that makes the Maxima and Altima sedans. Complete battery packs made by Nissan at a new plant adjacent to the assembly line will be delivered on a just-in-time basis at just the right point, said Susan Brennan, vice president of manufacturing for Smyrna and Decherd, Tenn.
Where we install the fuel tank [for conventional vehicles], we will install the battery. Where we [install] the engine, that's where the Leaf gets its motor, she said. One line, multiple products, flexible manufacturing.